3 Ways To Introduce Your Characters In The First Few Lines

3 Ways To Introduce Your Characters In The First Few Lines

This post is about how writers should introduce their characters in the first few lines. It includes three tips to help you do it as well as you can.

Thin Slicing

We all thin slice. No, I’m not referring to your culinary skills. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinkingthin slicing is defined as our unconscious ability ‘to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience’. This is what allows you to suss out people instinctively only seconds after meeting them.

The same holds true for your readers. Because they will be thin slicing the characters in your novel, how you introduce and describe your characters in those first few lines is critical.

Wasted Opportunities

First-time authors often make the mistake of introducing a character by describing physical appearance. While it tells readers what a character looks like, it’s a lower form of storytelling. You have only a few seconds to create a snapshot that shows the reader exactly who the character is.

[Use our Character Creation Kit to create great characters for your stories.]

Meet Sheriff Elliot West

Consider these two introductions: 

Sheriff West I

The dry glare spilled around him, making his silhouette painful to look at. He kept the chapped saloon doors open with his sausage fingers, the chunky gold ring on his little finger glinting. Ol’ Jim’s honky-tonk melody faltered. Satisfied, he sauntered into the saloon, the doors clapping to behind him.
‘Howdy, ma’am,’ he said, easing his hat onto the counter. He licked his thumb and rubbed the spotless sheriff’s badge.
Sally fidgeted behind the counter.
‘Elliot,’ she nodded. It was her small rebellion.
He fingered his badge. She refused to give in.
‘Make it a double,’ he said.
His eyes locked with hers and then slid away again, but not before she saw the dark flash. Of course it would be whiskey. Of course it would be a double. Of course it would be on the house.

Sheriff West II

The dry glare spilled around him, silhouetting his frame in the doorway for a moment. He strode into the saloon, his loose-limbed gait keeping time with Ol’ Jim’s honky-tonk melody. He tossed his hat with its sheriff’s badge onto the counter in a puff of dust.
‘Sally,’ he grinned around the matchstick in his mouth.
‘Elliot,’ she said, pouring whiskey into a foggy-glassed tumbler.
‘How’s business?’ he asked.
She tipped the bottle to make it a double, but he stayed her hand with calloused fingers.
‘That’ll do, thanks.’
‘I can give it to you on the house, you know.’
‘Nah. It’s not the money. Steady head, steady hands.’

3 Ways To Introduce Your Characters In The First Few Lines

Make your words count. Here are three tips to help you introduce your characters in a few lines:

  1. Use physical descriptions sparingly and make them do double duty: readers don’t need to know all your characters’ physical attributes – only the important ones. Think of the first sheriff’s sausage fingers, gold ring, and clean badge, compared to the second sheriff’s calloused fingers and dusty hat.
  2. Establish your characters’ characteristics: you can show who your characters are by the way they move, their habits, and how they treat others. What does the sheriffs’ treatment of Sally tell you?
  3. Play with stereotypes: in real life, the danger with thin slicing is that you stereotype people and make incorrect judgements. In writing, stereotyping is a fun tool. It can both quickly establish who a character is according to the stereotype, and help you make the character three-dimensional when you depart from it. It can also help you set up red herrings and work in surprise twists when you pull the stereotype-rug out from under your readers’ feet.

What you decide to do with your characters after your introduction is up to you, but make sure their ‘Howdy ma’am’ is a good one.

Watch out for next week’s post Tips To Round Out Your Characters

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, sign up for our online course.

 by Donna Radley

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Posted on: 14th April 2015

4 thoughts on “3 Ways To Introduce Your Characters In The First Few Lines”

  1. 1st Published 2001

    My latest begin with this very short prologue although I am not fond of them. What does everyone think? Be kind – first drafts are semi-crappy. 😉

    The Aston Martin sped around the eighteen-wheeler like it was standing still, leaving a flash of red and faint skid marks on the fresh falling snow.
    “God damn idiot kids,” the driver barked into the CB Mic. “Another one just whipped around me like I was sitting still. Like haulin’ a load of trees down a winding mountain pass is easy for a trucker? Kids today haven’t the smarts to realize the danger of shaded black ice on the …”
    The rig jerked to a stop. The whine of the diesel breaks cracked the icy air. “Oh God, call an ambulance. The kid’s skidded off-road into the ravine. It’s half mile west of logging road 6A. It looks bad.”
    The trucker jumped out of the Cab, grabbed orange cones and flares, expertly placing them around his rig. As if today’s near murder wasn’t enough to ruin my birthday celebration, he thought.
    “Paramedics, police and fire rig on the way,” A voice echoed from the CB radio through the pass. “ETA three minutes. Happy Birthday, Timber Man. Garden Goddess signing off.”

  2. Good luck with your first draft, 1st Published 2001. Mia Botha has written a helpful post about prologues. Here’s the link if you’d like to take a look: https://writerswrite.co.za//we-are-pro-the-prologue-sometimes

    Randy, it was an interesting exercise to write the introductions. In both, the sheriff does only three things: he walks into the saloon, puts his hat on the counter and speaks to Sally about his drink. Yet, in less than 140 words (138 for the first one and 108 for the second), the characterisation words help you thin slice and figure out the kind of sheriff with which you’re dealing. The one sheriff sounds decent, while I wouldn’t touch the other with a barge-pole. Incidentally, I enjoyed writing the second description more.

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